Australia’s participation in multilateral forums as a factor in the federal government’s foreign policy process is explained in Chapter 13 of the textbook (Australian Political Institutions, 10th edition), the significance of which is demonstrated by prime minister Tony Abbott’s attendance during November 2014 at APEC and ASEAN forums and Australia’s hosting of the 2014 G20 Summit in Brisbane. Associated meetings attended by Australian government ministers and officials included: APEC Finance Ministers’ Meeting attended by the Treasurer; APEC Ministerial Meeting attended by the Foreign Minister; APEC Senior Officials’ Meeting attended by officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Retreat; G20 Finance Ministers’ Meeting. The scope of Australia’s engagement with its membership of the G20 can be seen from the 2014 event schedule at http://www.g20.org/australia_2014/event_schedule.
Influences on the making of Australian foreign policy, including the role of the prime minister and cabinet, are explained in the textbook. The significance of the prime minister’s input derives from status attached to holding the position of leader of the government (p.433). This is evident from the media attention given to prime minister Abbott’s attendance at the APEC, ASEAN and the G20 summits, including photo opportunities in group or individual situations and reporting of Abbott’s personal meetings with significant national leaders such as US President Barack Obama. Other cabinet ministers were also engaged in the process (p. 435) of presenting and arguing for Australia’s policy views, i.e. the Treasurer Joe Hockey and Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop. The role of the bureaucracy (p. 436) is highlighted by the attendance of public service representatives at the APEC Senior Officials’ Meeting and input in terms of advice given to ministers as a function of departmental responsibilities.
Membership of multilateral organizations is used to promote and protect Australia’s national interests. This may not be easy to achieve because each member state has the same objective to protect its own interests. Bilateral talks between leaders are part of that process. For example, during the APEC and ASEAN summits, Indonesian President Joko Widodo held talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping requesting China take steps towards bolstering economic ties with Indonesia, with US President Barack Obama to demand that restrictions on Indonesian palm oil entering the US be lifted and with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Tony Abbott (Witula, R.A. 2014 17 November, http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2014/11/17/foreign-friendships-must-benefit-ri-jkowi.html). Prime minister Abbott also met, for example, with Putin, Xi Jinping, Obama, Merkel and British prime minister David Cameron.
The summit process seeks to achieve a negotiated consensus on outcomes agreed by the participants and presented in the joint communique. The real work is done behind the scenes. The APEC summit, for example, appeared ‘to be little more than an endless stream of meaningless press conferences and multilateral back-slapping…it’s festival season for diplomats, but the real show takes place on the sidelines’ (Schaefer, D. 2014, 11 November, http://thenewdaily.com.au/news/21014/11/11/apec-waltz-meetings-matter). Abbott wanted the G20 meeting ‘to be seen to achieve something tangible, not just to be a pointless talkfest’ (Taylor, L. 2014, 12 November, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov12/g20-brisbane-abbott-faces-uphill-task-summit-relevant-effective).
The fact that Australian governments do not always achieve their policy objectives in these multilateral forums was apparent at the G20 where Abbott was unsuccessful in keeping climate change out of the spotlight and off the formal agenda. The issue gained traction following the announcement of an agreement reached between China and the US governments on emission reductions just prior to the G20 meeting. The US agreed to cut emissions by 26-28 per cent by 2025 and China pledged its gas output would peak by 2030 and it would draw 20 per cent of its energy needs from zero-emission sources by 2030 (Taylor, L. & Hurst, D. 2014, 16 November, http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2014/nov/16/joe-hockey-climate-change-speeches-g20-real-work), In contrast, the Abbott government, which includes a number of climate sceptics ideologically opposed to a carbon tax or emissions trading scheme, is committed to reducing its emissions by 5 per cent of 2000 levels by 2020 through a program of direct action (Grattan, M. 2014, 17 November, http://www.businessspectator.com.au).
US President Obama’s strong support for increased action to combat climate change enunciated at a public speech at Queensland University ensured the topic was addressed at the summit and included in the communique. Abbott’s ‘impassioned’ support for fossil fuels in a private meeting with Obama (Scott, S. & Volger, S. 2014, 17 November, http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/queensland/g20-brisbane-t0ny-abbott-clashes-with-barack-obama-over-climate-change/story/fnmd7bxx-1227125019686) did not have a substantive impact. A ‘clear majority of leaders’ supported ‘stronger language in the communique on climate change’ and ‘ explicit endorsement’ of the global Green Climate Fund supported by the US (Allard, T. 2014, 17 November, http://www.smh.com.au/business/g20/climate-change-in-g20-communique-after-trench-warfare-20141116-11no3q.html).
Multilateral forums such as the G20 issue communiques but, unlike a treaty, the recommendations are not binding on members. No doubt there is pressure on member states to comply but no enforceable penalties if they do not other than the potential to place sanctions against recalcitrant states if the issue is considered serious enough to warrant such extreme action. It is unlikely that the G20 communique will alter the Abbott government’s ideologically driven policies on climate change. Treasurer Joe Hockey is reported to have ‘downplayed the significance of pledges by the United States and China to cut emissions’, emphatically refuted the notion that climate change is an impediment to growth and said ‘we have to do what we believe to be right for the nation; he (Obama) is doing what he believes to be right for the United States’ (Taylor, L. & Hurst, D. op.cit). Abbott continues to support the coal industry as ‘a crucial energy source’ and did not commit his government to pay into the Green Climate Fund (Scott,S. & Volger, S. op.cit).
Membership of multilateral forums do not always deliver on the policies preferred by Australian governments. However, they do play an important role in providing Australia’s prime minister and cabinet ministers with the opportunity to meet personally with world leaders for discussions that can facilitate the development of good working relationships that enable the government to work towards achieving Australia’s policy preferences. Nevertheless, membership of multilateral organizations is only one element in the development of Australian foreign policy which is determined principally within the context of the country’s national interest, framed within the context of domestic factors such as party ideology, economic policy and electoral concerns discussed in Chapter 13.
Dr Gwynneth Singleton
19 November 2014